I remember being often asked as an elementary school student in the United States, “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” “I’m Korean,” I would answer. A variety of responses would then follow: “Where’s that?” “Isn’t that, like, a part of China?” Or, the worst one of all: “Same thing.”
It seemed like nobody knew what or where Korea was, despite maybe having relatives that had fought a war there. When my classmates saw me, they associated me with Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, ninjas, or anything else not Korean. For second-generation Korean Americans like myself, this was a common occurrence before the rise of K-Pop, especially Psy’s Gangnam Style, and films like Parasite. Until such cultural phenomena reached America, many Americans did not know, or maybe even did not care to know, the difference between Koreans and the Chinese or Japanese.
The last year has been hard for all of us. But for the global Asian community, it has been especially bad. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, Asians in the United States, Canada, and Europe have been targeted for abuse simply because the virus originated in China. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Filipino, and other “Oriental-looking” people have been punched, kicked, pushed, stabbed, and shot because the perpetrators thought anyone “Chinese-looking” must have the virus or because they just wanted to let out their rage on people they thought of as “Chinese”.
And that brings me to the “I’m not Chinese” defense. During a Republican forum on April 2 in Arlington, Texas, a candidate for the House of Representatives, Sery Kim, a Korean American, commented on the Chinese in a response to a question on immigration: “I don’t want them here at all. They steal our intellectual property, they give us coronavirus, they don’t hold themselves accountable.” The point she seemed to be making was, “Hey, I’m not Chinese, so stop bothering me.” But sadly, she took it further than that by pandering to the Republican base and echoing former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on immigration.
Race in America is a complicated issue, but if there is one thing that seems universal, it is this: to racists, bigots, and the ignorant, every “Yellow” face is Chinese. There is plenty of evidence for this in history.
When the Chinese “coolies” came to California in the 1800s for the gold rush and to build railroads, they were regarded by white Americans as carrying diseases, stealing jobs from white people, and wanting to rape white women—the same racist rhetoric used against Latin American immigrants today. In towns and cities across the western United States, these Chinese immigrants were confined to ghettos called Chinatowns and many were massacred by mobs of white men. In 1882, the United States government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning the immigration of all Chinese people. The labor shortage that followed led to an influx of Koreans, Japanese, and Filipinos, and it didn’t take too long for the same attitude that had been shown toward the Chinese to transfer to the other Asian groups, leading to the Immigration Act of 1924, which banned all immigration from Asia. Racism against Chinese people affects us “similar-looking” Asians too.
After the Empire of Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor, racists attacked Asians on the streets of America. Koreans, Chinese, and other Asians were harassed and attacked right along with Japanese, and it took lobbying by Syngman Rhee and other Korean independence leaders to convince the US government to not intern Koreans along with the Japanese.
In 1982, a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was randomly murdered by two white men in Detroit because of his race. The men were angry about the rise of Japanese cars in America and blamed the Japanese for the fact that they had lost their jobs at a US-brand automobile factory. In a fit of rage, they took a baseball bat from their trunk and smashed Vincent Chin’s head in, not knowing, or caring, that Vincent Chin was Chinese, not Japanese. The two murderers never went to jail.
And these kinds of anti-Asian hate crimes are happening again. On January 28 of this year, an 84-year-old Thai American man was violently pushed to the ground. He died from his injuries. Then on February 6, a 64-year-old woman of Vietnamese ancestry was slashed with a knife and robbed. And the Korean American community is acutely aware that on March 16 eight people, six of whom were Asians, including four Koreans, were murdered by a mass shooter at three spas in Atlanta. There have been many more incidents of physical violence and threatening behavior. And I can bet that none of the perpetrators of these attacks stopped to ask if their victims were Chinese before attacking. Because, throughout the years, racists and bigots have not changed—they don’t know and they don’t care if we are not Chinese.
So what’s the point of trying to defend ourselves or escape violence or prejudice by holding our hands up, shaking our heads, and insisting, “No, no, no! I’m not Chinese”? What’s the use of going even further, as Sery Kim did, and making racist, ignorant statements just to try to look good in front of white people (and yes, even the Black and Latino people who carried out some of these racist attacks in the last year), when this might only attract further racist abuse from online trolls, as Sery Kim found out?
There is no point to any of those responses, because the “I’m not Chinese” defense does not work. Asians in America must instead stand united against ignorance, racism, and bigotry. We have to stand up for each other despite the history and current political situations of the old countries. As a Korean American, I know that South Koreans are suspicious of China because of their closeness with North Korea. I know that South Korea worries about China’s growing global power and what that will mean for Korea’s economic and national security. But in America we have to put that aside. First, the Chinese Communist Party does not represent the vast Chinese diaspora. Chinese Americans are first and foremost Americans. Second, as Chinese Americans are being attacked, so are we.
The ethnic lines are blurring among the second and third generations of Asian Americans. We are all growing up with similar experiences, being raised in two different cultures as Asians in America. We are going to English-speaking churches together, and we’re intermarrying. We are raising a generation of multi-Asian children.
So I want to say to the imos and samchons, hyungs and nunas, let’s forget the “I’m not Chinese” defense. Let’s not resort to what Sery Kim did and use our Koreanness to try to save ourselves or, worse, contribute to the hate. Let’s instead join the aunties, uncles, brothers, and sisters of other Asian communities and fight together against AAPI hate.